Archives For Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement about recent developments relating to the on-the-run letters which have permitted a second fugitive to evade justice.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On Monday 26 January, the coroner conducting the inquest into the death of Mr Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared in May 2003, directed that the inquest should be stayed pending an investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into one of the suspects in Mr O’Connor’s murder. The suspect was part of the administrative scheme dealing with so-called on-the-runs, and was in receipt of a letter from the Northern Ireland Office informing him that he was not wanted for arrest by police forces in the United Kingdom. This case is specifically covered on pages 107 and 108 of the Hallett report on the on-the-runs scheme, where it is described as “error 2”. The fact of the error has therefore been in the public domain for some time, and the case is not a new development.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating the suspect’s case, and will be considering whether charges can be brought against the individual concerned. I spoke to the Chief Constable of the PSNI yesterday, and I understand from him that this is a live police investigation. I also briefed the Justice Minister—in brief—on the case. The police will investigate where the evidence leads them. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the specifics of the case.
As for the OTR administrative scheme, I set out the Government’s position fully in my statement to the House on 9 September. That followed detailed consideration of the report by Lady Justice Hallett, which was published in July. I made clear in my statement that the scheme was at an end, and that there was no basis for any reliance on letters received by so-called OTRs under the scheme. There is no amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution. Those who received letters under the scheme should be in no doubt: if there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police, and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution, they will be prosecuted.

Ian Paisley: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The most disturbing aspect of what she has told the House today is the fact that the O’Connor murder relates to a post-1998 murder that occurred in 2003. We have been consistently told that the names of the OTRs were critical to securing a 1998 peace agreement, yet this murder post-dates that. Will the Secretary of State now agree to publish all the names with all the letters? Will she publish correspondence between Baroness Scotland and the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), whom I informed earlier I would be mentioning in the House, in terms of the relationship between that correspondence and the murderer of Mr O’Connor? Will the Secretary of State estimate how many other errors there are in this catalogue of errors and accept that the Government and the Hallett review conclusion that there is a single error is now without foundation?
Will the Secretary of State now consider legislation formally to annul the value of all these letters, to put meat on the bones of what she has said: that these letters are without value? Does she agree that Gerry Kelly must be formally investigated for how these letters have been distributed and for whom these letters have been requested? What compensation is now being considered for the families of those who have suffered as a result of Mr Downey’s activities and as a result of the actions by the murderer of Mr O’Connor, because these people cannot get justice by any other means and must now be entitled to some form of compensation?

Mrs Villiers: As is clear from the conclusions of the Hallett report, this letter should not have been issued; it was issued in error. For a number of reasons I do not think it would be appropriate to make public the names of the individuals who received letters under the scheme, not the least of which is that doing so could potentially prejudice a future prosecution and make it more difficult to secure a conviction.
In relation to the number of errors, Lady Justice Hallett identified in her report two errors in addition to the one made in the case of Mr John Downey. She also identified a further 36 cases considered by Operation Rapid where she believed there was a risk that the wrong test had been applied. She did not conclude that there were actually errors in these cases, but she proposed that they should be a priority for further investigation because the risk of error in those cases was higher than in others.
In relation to legislation, as I briefed the House in September, it is clear to me that the most effective means to guard against future collapses of trials and future abuse of processes defence is to issue a clear statement indicating to anyone who received a letter under the scheme that it is not safe to rely on those letters—that they should not be relied on—and that is what I did. The option of legislating on these matters was carefully considered, but the conclusion is that legislation would not be as effective as a clear statement at the Dispatch Box that the scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied on, not least because of a risk that errors have been made in other cases.

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The DUP’s North Antrim MP Ian Paisley has demanded that the Secretary of State repeat her previous statement that the On-The-Run letters are now worthless.

On Tuesday morning Mr Paisley tabled an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on the matter in light of another court case breaking down when a letter was produced by a leading suspect in the inquiry into the murder of Gareth O’Connor.

In a question to the Secretary of State, Mr Paisley said,

“The most disturbing aspect of what the Secretary of State has told the House today, is the fact that the O’Connor murder relates to a post 1998 murder that occurred in 2003. We have been consistently told that the names of the OTRs were critical to securing the 1998 peace agreement yet this murder post dates that occurrence.”

Speaking from Westminster the North Antrim MP said, “The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee have been conducting its inquiry for the past year. We have been repeatedly told from the most senior members of the Northern Ireland Office and figures from the previous Labour Government including Tony Blair that the John Downey incident was a ‘catastrophic error’, a mistake on their part. Their words were taken by the Committee in good faith, but now all of that must be called in to question following yesterday’s revelation of yet another letter.”

The Secretary of State had previously told the Inquiry that the letters “can no longer be relied on” and was this morning pressed to confirm categorically whether that means they are worthless and won’t prevent any courts from pursuing justice in murder trials such as the murder of Mr O’Connor.

Mr Paisley questioned further, “Would she [Secretary of State] agree that Gerry Kelly must be formally investigated for how these letters have been distributed and to whom?”

Speaking afterwards Mr Paisley added, “Gerry Kelly must surely now be investigated over his role in this scheme given that he was the man to deliver this letter and he must now be forced to give evidence under oath as to his participation in the administration of this scheme.”

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley has said the latest revelation in the ‘On The Runs’ scandal demonstrates once again why Sinn Fein were so determined that the scheme would remain secret.

Mr Paisley said “This secret OTR scheme was operated for the sole benefit of republicans and since it was first uncovered we have seen just how involved Sinn Fein were in its operation. It is therefore no surprise that Gerry Adams was so determined to ensure that it remained “invisible”. It was shambolic in operation and in principle – a corruption of justice.

The Government has now stated that these letters cannot be relied upon to avoid prosecution. This case once again demonstrates the importance of those words.

The latest revelation of an OTR letter being issued in error disproves the view that the Downey case was a ‘catastrophic error’.
The fact is that the entire shambolic OTR case was a catalogue of errors perpetrated by a government and NIO hell bent on concessions to Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly.

That is why the DUP believe NI is better off with a local government with local people in charge to stop this sort of concession from happening again.
Those who think we should make a crisis out of this at Stormont really do miss the point.

There must not only be a full investigation into the individual who received this letter, but if there is any evidence of efforts by Gerry Kelly or anyone else to assist a suspect evade justice then this must also be fully considered by police.

There has been several inquiries into this matter and the inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has not yet completed its work. We are determined that the truth must be uncovered about this shameful scheme and its operation.”

Tony Blair Apology

January 13, 2015

Ian Paisley: I want to bring this back to the victims because the victims in all of this have actually been lost. Behind you in that gallery are victims of the Hyde Park bombing and their families. There are also many other victims from Kingsmill and many other massacres across Northern Ireland. There’s people there who are related to the 300 victims of the 95 people who received letters. I wonder if you want to take an opportunity now to turn round to those victims and apologise to them for the catastrophic error that your government was involved in that allowed for someone, a fugitive, to evade justice and for several others to be continued to allow to carry with them a letter that appears to get them off the justice hook.

Tony Blair: I said to you a moment ago that I adopted what was in the Hallett Review, and I do. I accept full responsibility, I’m the Prime Minister, I should accept full responsibility for everything that happens in a government of which I am the Prime Minister, for not having put in a structure for this procedure that might have meant in the Downey Case, as Lady Justice Hallett finds, that the letter would not have been sent and therefore the trial would have proceeded. For that I take responsibility, I feel sorry for those people and I apologise to those people who have suffered as a result of that. But I am not going to apologise for sending those letters to those who should have received them because without having done that we would not have a NI peace process in place today.

Ian Paisley: So you’re apologising for the error but not for the process?

Tony Blair: Look, these people have suffered enormously from what has happened. The reason I spent time and effort and I think I am justified in saying beyond what any Prime Minister before me or since me has done in NI is so that more victims of terrorism and more families would not suffer and right at this moment if we did not have a NI peace process, right at this moment as we can see from events elsewhere where we are dealing with a new form of terrorism we would still be dealing with terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley: Mr Blair I do not doubt your interest, your love and your compassion for Northern Ireland as a former Prime Minister, no one is doubting that, we are not questioning that today. We are questioning a method and a policy that unfortunately allowed someone to evade justice and of which you were the PM at the time which allowed that to happen. Inadvertently perhaps on your part but it was a catastrophic error. Now I welcome the fact that you have said sorry for part of that process. Theresa Villiers has apologised on behalf of her government and I think that’s important as your former spokesman when he was in front of us did not apologise and would not apologise for us so I think its important today that you have said that.

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley has welcomed the news that former Prime Minister Tony Blair will give evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the OTR scandal.

The DUP MP said, ‘For some time now it appears that Tony Blair has been on the run from this Committee. It is vital that we get to the bottom of the grubby deal struck between the previous Labour Government and republicans and the ‘capture’ of Mr Blair by the Committee will help in this process.
It would have been a contempt of Parliament for him not to attend and this demonstrates the power of the Committee.’

Upper Bann MP David Simpson commented on the fact that two government officials will not now appear at the Committee. He said, ‘Parliamentary Committees do not take their work lightly and the need to get to the bottom of this scandal is absolutely paramount. It will be for the Committee to decide what course of action to take in relation to this failure, but it is notable that Tony Blair will now appear before the Committee and I would hope that the matter does not rest here but that all avenues are pursued to ensure that all evidence from relevant personnel is heard.’